Oscar Niemeyer is on the infinitesimally short list of people who have designed and built an entire city. A world capital. Sure, Haussmann made Paris into the postcard background it is today and Wren rebuilt London after the Great Fire (by not building everything out of wood—good thinking!). But it’s not like they were lacking in usable models on which to base their work, considering those cities were already functioning metropolises before they got the re-up. Niemeyer, though—he took an empty patch of Brazilian countryside and, in four years (and with the layout assistance of Lucio Costa), put a hyperfunctional capital city on the face of the earth. It’s called Brasília, and it’s shaped like an airplane or a butterfly or a woman (though Niemeyer claims it’s not a woman). That was 50 years ago, and Niemeyer has been working nonstop ever since. He’s 101 years old and still designs buildings every day. He spent a few years as the president of the Brazilian Communist Party, recently got married at the sprightly age of 98, and got himself into trouble last year for trying to make some changes to Brasília. Living for a century has given him a lot of perspective, as in, “architecture-can’t-give-meaning-to-your-life” perspective. And when a guy who built an entire city from scratch tells you that nobody in this life is important, you start to fear that nothing, not a single accomplishment that you rack up, will ever mean anything to anybody, ever. Vice: Let’s start with an easy one. How did you become interested in architecture? Oscar Niemeyer: I think that drawing drove me to it. I remember when I was ten years old and I used to like to draw with my fingers in the air. My mother would ask, “What are you doing, boy?” I would say, “I’m drawing.” I could picture the drawings in the air and correct them. Now I think differently. Architecture is in my head. I am able to do a project without the use of a pencil. I can imagine the location and I can imagine the project that I want to make. I think of all the solutions. And how did you come to build Brasília? President Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira, who had hired me to design the Pampulha Church in Belo Horizonte, assigned me Brasília. I remember when Juscelino decided to build Brasília. He came to my office and said, “Oscar, we did Pampulha and now we will build the new capital.” That’s how Brasília’s adventure started. An entire city was built so quickly. I knew we only had a short time, but that didn’t influence me to design simpler architecture. When I built the Alvorada Palace, for instance, I made a curved canopy and curved columns—a type of column that had never been built before. You’ve said your architecture has strived for new shapes or forms. What do you mean by that? We didn’t make the architecture that Bauhaus wanted, which would be purely functional. Architecture has to be pretty. It has to amaze to be a masterpiece. I work a lot. I have lots of work over in Europe and here, but I always try to bring beauty and amazement. And the Bauhaus philosophy was too cold for you. Architecture can’t be like Bauhaus wanted, a “habitation machine.” Architecture has to be born from nothing, have no influences. Once a very intelligent architect told me, “There’s no modern or old architecture, there’s only good and bad architecture.” Now, I don’t see architecture as something that will save the world, but I think the architect has to read, has to be informed. For instance, here in our office, we’ve had a class for five years where we have a teacher coming to talk about philosophy and the cosmos. How good it is to know things. That’s a pretty unconventional way to run an architecture firm. I’m interested in life. I think life is more important than architecture. I think what’s important is solidarity. I remember once a journalist asked me, “Oscar, what’s your favorite word?” I said, “Solidarity.” But architecture isn’t your favorite thing to discuss? When I talk about architecture, I feel like changing the subject. I’m interested in problems of life and the human being.
Niemeyer was characteristically unwilling to discuss his legendary devotion to the female form—or the solid gold penis he is said to have purchased for his wife. He was, however, extremely gracious in providing us with these drawings from his personal archive.
Let’s change the subject then. Let’s talk about women. Now when you talk about women, that’s great. Woman is fundamental. Once, a journalist came here and asked me, “Oscar, what is life?” I said life is a woman on your side. And it’s true. Another great friend of mine, Darcy Ribeiro, who was a very important scholar in Brazilian society, said woman is fundamental. I’ve always heard that the curves in architecture were based on female curves. No. If we have a dome with empty space—generous space—then we want the best-looking shape. Sometimes it happens to coincide with a woman’s body, but that’s not our objective. We want a pure form, a different form that relates to the calculations and that will bring to the project a different sensation. But I was imagining… No. There’s nothing to do with woman. The form comes from nothing. Do you still draw? Oh yes, a lot. What do you draw these days? [He shows us a drawing.] Well, this, for instance, is a theater in Buenos Aires. The shape is very different. You have never seen a shape like this before. It has a lower cover that corresponds to the audience and an upper dome that corresponds to the stage. I can say modestly that you have never seen something like this before. How do you see the cultural climate of Brazil today? Brazil is important. Brazil is growing. We are in a moment in time where there’s hope. We are doing well—Brazil is defending itself, it’s organizing itself, the president is a friend of the people. He was a worker, he reacts to any exterior intervention, he protects our sovereignty. What are some other projects that you have going? Well, this is a square I want to make in Brasília, because every capital has a square that is pretty monumental. In this triangular-shaped monument, the first two floors are set for a permanent exhibition about the country’s progress. The triangle keeps going and changing until it becomes this 100-meter-high monument and then there’s this other smaller one where the square ends. I understand this project is causing some controversy. There’s been some commotion about it, about whether it’s going to change Brasília’s landscape. But it’s nothing like that. Cities have always been changing. In France, a lot of things have changed; in Spain, the cities grew to the sea because it was the natural solution. In Brazil, if the cities were static, we would never have had the avenue that Mayor Passos created, cutting the city in half. Modifications have always happened. But some people started to demand that the city be “protected,” which I think is stupid. The city can’t be protected. There’s always going to be a better idea that has to be incorporated. I remind them as a joke that if they thought nothing could change, they couldn’t think about the future, because the future is nature manufacturing and changing everything. When the ice from the poles starts to melt with more intensity and the sea levels start to rise, which can happen, above two meters, every city on the coast will have to rethink itself. That’s something that comes from nature and changes everything. And this is not happening in 100 years—it can happen in the next 20, 30 years. The ice caps could melt in ten years. Nature is unpredictable. It’s a serious concern. Today architecture and urbanism have to be aware of the problems that the evolution of the planet is creating. If the sea levels rise too much, every building and rooftop will have to become a place to grow grass and plants. Nature will change urbanism and architecture. The architect has to watch for everything that’s happening now and in the future. But aren’t social concerns important to architecture too? The architect must think that the world has to be a better place, that we can end poverty. Here in Brazil, there’s still this war between classes. So it is important that the architect think not only of architecture but of how architecture can solve the problems of the world. When the world is a better place, what’s going to happen? Houses will be simpler. We won’t have ghettos and palaces. Theaters, museums, and stadiums will be bigger so that all can enjoy them. Now, poor people don’t understand architecture. They see it from afar. They will at least think the architecture I do is pretty, because it’s a different type of surprise. So architecture is political too. The architect has to always be political. One has to help another—solidarity. The rest is nothing. If you look to the cosmos, you’re so small, you’re so unimportant. We have to be more simple and not think we’re important. Nobody is important. Do you like soccer? Of course. When I was ten years old, there was a player missing from the junior soccer team and they took me to play. I was ten years old on a soccer field, imagine that! My grandfather played also, for Fluminense. I used to play soccer in my street and on the beach. We used to go to the beach early in the morning. Every summer, we rented a house in Copacabana. Once we rented a house exactly where this building is now. I remember we used to go to the beach at six in the morning to see the arrival of the boats and people buying fish on the shore. The sky was still red, the boats were just showing up. Their contour… We were born on the beach. And soccer was the joy. It still is, and we play it really well. One thing Brazilians do well is play soccer… What is your daily routine like now? I come here at 10 AM. Usually the press comes here, the national and the international press, and I receive them. They are people like you. I talk about whatever interests me, always repeating that architecture is not everything, that life is what matters, that we have to be decent, fraternal, all that. In the afternoon, my friends come by, we talk, chat, enjoy it. And at night, I go home. That is my personal life. And you intend to work as long as you can, right? As long as I can, I will do it. That’s what I do all day long. I think about architecture and politics and meet with friends who come here to discuss it all. We want to tell young people that life is more important than architecture, more important than anything. Life is to know how to behave, to take pleasure in being amiable and just. That’s it. But life is not important. I am not going to say it’s terrible, but it is what destiny gives us. Would you like to sit back and enjoy the extended version of this interview? You can, lucky person, by going to VBS.TV.